A red-eyed vireo is lurking in the backyard, beating larvae to death on branches. In celebration of yard-bird number #54 (not bad for not being on a body of water!) I give you a bird-themed annotated fairy tale! This one’s from Serbia, bears strong resemblances to the Firebird story from Russia, and while much of it is standard fairy tale fare, it includes at least one interesting reversal of the usual course of events.
This one doesn’t delight me as much as the last, and the language is nowhere near as elegant, but it does have one or two moments worth visiting.
The Golden Apple Tree And The Nine Peahens
Once upon a time there lived a king who had three sons. Now, before the king’s palace grew a golden apple tree, which in one and the same night blossomed, bore fruit, and lost all its fruit, though no one could tell who took the apples.
As a gardener, let me just say that this is not how it works, and I always wondered where they’re getting these apple trees. And what’s pollinating them? There are bat-pollinated fruit trees—in fact, the ancestor of all peach trees is believed to have been bat-pollinated—but they tend to be in Asia and occasionally the American Southwest. I assume that somewhere there’s a magical mayfly that hatches on the night the apples blossom, pollinate, have an orgy, lay eggs under the bark and then die.
One day the king, speaking to his eldest son, said, “I should like to know who takes the fruit from our apple tree!”
And the son said, “I will keep guard tonight, and will see who gathers the apples.”
So when the evening came he went and laid himself down, under the apple tree, upon the ground to watch. Just, however, as the apples ripened, he fell asleep, and when he awoke in the morning, there was not a single one left on the tree. Whereupon he went and told his father what had happened.
Then the second son offered to keep watch by the tree, but he had no better success than his eldest brother.
So the turn came to the king’s youngest son to keep guard. He made his preparations, brought his bed under the tree, and immediately went to sleep. Before midnight he awoke and looked up at the tree, and saw how the apples ripened, and how the whole palace was lit up by their shining.
At least this story makes no bones about the fact that he succeeds because he’s a third son and not because he’s cleverer than anyone else. He just woke up because narrative demands it. Occasionally you get third sons who are nicer or kinder or smarter or whatever, but this time, he doesn’t even get a name, let alone useful skills.
At that minute nine peahens flew towards the tree, and eight of them settled on its branches—
In case you’re curious, peafowl don’t fly if they can help it. They prefer to escape on foot whenever possible. They certainly can get airborne, and will fly into trees to roost, but think turkeys rather than swans. Either the peaheans live on the grounds or they walked most of the way from Fairyland.
—but the ninth alighted near him and turned instantly into a beautiful girl — so beautiful, indeed, that the whole kingdom could not produce one who could in any way compare with her.
She stayed, conversing kindly with him, till after midnight, then thanking him for the golden apples, she prepared to depart. But, as he begged she would leave him one, she gave him two, one for himself and one for the king his father. Then the girl turned again into a peahen, and flew away with the other eight.
There’s a whole branch of—well, porn isn’t quite the term, but I’m drawing a blank on another one—devoted to people who are really into transformations into animals. You go to a furry convention as an artist, and sometimes you’ll get people asking for transformation drawings, and usually the more agonizing and painful and freaky it is, the happier they are. Tearing off your own skin to reveal the animal underneath is a common one (and has some precedent in Aztec mythology, if my memory isn’t failing me.)
I am not saying this to judge anyone’s fetish, and as these things go, this one’s pretty harmless, but it does bring up the point that transformation probably either goes one of two ways—either you get the glowy transporter effect thing and wham! Peahen! or you get the horrible bone-cracking internal organs on the outside oh god oh god it hurts and where did I put my pancreas I swear it was here a moment ago and then at the end of it, you’ve gone from a 150lb woman to a 10lb bird and the prince watching you is vomiting into the bushes in horror.
Gonna guess this was a glowy transporter effect one. Just a feeling.
Next morning, the king’s son took the two apples to his father, and the king was much pleased, and praised his son.
When the evening came, the king’s youngest son took his place again under the apple tree to keep guard over it. He again conversed as he had done the night before with the beautiful girl, and brought to his father, the next morning, two apples as before.
But, after he had succeeded so well several nights, his two elder brothers grew envious because he had been able to do what they could not. At length they found an old woman, who promised to discover how the youngest brother had succeeded in saving the two apples.
Never send a post-adolescent male to do an old woman’s job! Also, am I the only one picturing Jessica Fletcher from “Murder She Wrote?”
So, as the evening came, the old woman stole softly under the bed which stood under the apple tree, and hid herself. And after a while, came also the king’s son, and laid himself down as usual to sleep. When it was near midnight the nine peahens flew up as before, and eight of them settled on the branches, and the ninth stood by his bed, and turned into a most beautiful girl.
The old woman, being under the bed and all, could only tell that she had really sexy ankles.
Then the old woman slowly took hold of one of the girl’s curls, and cut it off, and the girl immediately rose up, changed again into a peahen and flew away, and the other peahens followed her, and so they all disappeared.
…I guess her hair hung down to the ground? Otherwise Jessica Fletcher is a ninja.
Then the king’s son jumped up, and cried out, “What is that?” and, looking under the bed, he saw the old woman, and drew her out. Next morning he order her to be tied to a horse’s tail, and so torn to pieces.
Nooooo! Jessica! Who will solve Cabot Cove’s murders now? (or possibly secretly commit them?)
Seriously, though, this is way overkill. Your brothers hired the woman! If they didn’t step in and say “Whoops, sorry, told her to do that!” then they are scum and deserve whatever happens to them. And I do not think highly of your kingdom, when you are allowed to draw-and-quarter people the morning without a trial.
But the peahens never came back, so the king’s son was very sad for a long time, and wept at his loss.
Oh, you’re crying? That old woman had six grandkids. She was beloved in the community. Her gingersnap baking skills were hailed far and wide. You monster. The peahens probably aren’t coming back because YOU TIE LITTLE OLD LADIES TO HORSES, did you think of that?
At length he resolved to go and look after his peahen; resolving never to come back again unless he should find her. When he told the king his father of his intention, the king begged him not do go away, and told him that he would find him another beautiful girl, and that he might choose out of the whole kingdom.
But all the king’s persuasions were useless, so his son went into the world — taking only one servant to serve him — to search everywhere for his peahen.
I like to think that there were posters up with a picture of a peahen and “HAVE YOU SEEN ME?” written underneath.
After many travels he came one day to a lake. Now by the lake stood a large and beautiful palace. In the palace lived an old woman as queen, and with the queen lived a girl, her daughter. He said to the old woman, “For heaven’s sake, grandmother, do you know anything about nine golden peahens?”
And the old woman answered, “Oh, my son, I know all about them. They come every midday to bathe in the lake. But what do you want with them? Let them be. Think nothing about them. Here is my daughter. Such a beautiful girl! And such an heiress! All my wealth will remain to you if you marry her.”
I frequently try to marry my daughter to random vagrants who show up babbling about being in love with fowl. It’s a thing.
But he, burning with desire to see the peahens, would not listen to what the old woman spoke about her daughter.
Next morning, when day dawned, the prince prepared to go down to the lake to wait for the peahens. Then the old queen bribed the servant and gave him a little pair of bellows, and said, “Do you see these bellows? When you come to the lake you must blow secretly with them behind his neck, and then he will fall asleep, and not be able to speak to the peahens.”
The mischievous servant did as the old woman told him. When he went with his master down to the lake, he took occasion to blow with the bellows behind his neck, and the poor prince fell asleep just as though he were dead.
Drugged bellows are a new one. Generally they just go with poisoned drinks. I kind of wonder if small children were helping flesh out the details at this point.
Shortly after, the nine peahens came flying, and eight of them alighted by the lake, but the ninth flew towards him as he sat on horseback, and caressed him, and tried to awaken him. “Awake my darling! Awake, my heart! Awake, my soul!”
On the strength of three short conversations and an unjust draw-and-quartering, I am madly in love with you!
But for all that he knew nothing, just as if he were dead.
After they had bathed, all the peahens flew away together, and after they were gone the prince woke up, and said to his servant, “What has happened? Did they not come?”
The servant told him they had been there, and that eight of them had bathed, but the ninth had sat by him on his horse, and caressed and tried to awaken him. Then the king’s son was so angry that he almost killed himself in his rage.
Next morning he went down again to the shore to wait for the peahens, and rode about a long time till the servant again found an opportunity of blowing with the bellows behind his neck, so that he again fell asleep as though dead. Hardly had he fallen asleep before the nine peahens came flying, and eight of them alighted by the water, but the ninth settled down by the side of his horse and caressed him, and cried out to awaken him, “Arise, my darling! Arise, my heart! Arise my soul!”
But it was of no use. The prince slept on as if he were dead. Then she said to the servant, “Tell your master, tomorrow he can see us here again, but nevermore.”
With these words the peahens flew away. Immediately after, the king’s son woke up and asked his servant, “Have they not been here?”
And the man answered, “Yes, they have been, and say that you can see them again tomorrow, at this place, but after that they will not return again.”
When the unhappy prince heard that, he knew not what to do with himself, and in his great trouble and misery tore the hair from his head.
I’ve actually heard a firsthand account of someone tearing their own hair out before. Apparently it’s not as impressive as you’d think. Hair doesn’t fling very well, so once you have a few strands torn out, the only thing you can do is watch it sort of float down, which lacks a certain drama.
The person in question, apparently frustrated by the slow drift of hair on the breeze, turned and began to jog away down the middle of the street. He had some issues. The moral of the story, I suppose, is that you should never yell “You’re going to make me tear my hair out!” and then try to move beyond the realm of metaphor. It’s like trying to slam one of those safety doors that stop two inches from the threshold. Plan ahead.
The third day he went down again to the shore, but, fearing to fall asleep, instead of riding slowly, galloped along the shore. His servant, however, found an opportunity of blowing with the bellows behind his neck, and again the prince fell asleep.
At this point we should stop to notice at the servant is an amazing rider. He’s keeping up at a gallop and managing to work the bellows at the same time.
A moment after came the nine peahens, and the eight alighted on the lake and the ninth by him on his horse, and sought to awaken him, caressing him. “Arise, my darling! Arise, my heart! Arise, my soul!”
But it was of no use. He slept on as if dead. Then the peahen said to the servant, “When your master awakens tell him he ought to strike off the head of the nail from the lower part, and then he will find me.”
Thereupon all the peahens fled away. Immediately the king’s son awoke and said to his servant, “Have they been here?”
And the servant answered, “They have been, and the one which alighted on your horse, ordered me to tell you to strike off the head of the nail from the lower part, and then you will find her.”
When the prince heard that, he drew his sword and cut off his servant’s head.
Somewhat more justified than the murder of Jessica Fletcher.
After that he traveled alone about the world, and, after long traveling, came to a mountain and remained all night there with a hermit, whom he asked if he knew anything about nine golden peahens.
The hermit said, “Eh! My son, you are lucky. God has led you in the right path. From this place it is only a half a day’s walk. But you must go straight on, then you will come to a large gate, which you must pass through. And, after that, you must keep always to the right hand, and so you will come to the peahens’ city, and there find their palace.”
So next morning the king’s son arose, and prepared to go. He thanked the hermit, and went as he had told him. After a while he came to the great gate, and, having passed it, turned to the right, so that at midday he saw the city, and beholding how white it shone, rejoiced very much.
When he came into the city he found the palace where lived the nine golden peahens. But at the gate he was stopped by the guard, who demanded who he was, and whence he came. After he had answered these questions, the guards went to announce him to the queen.
Since this is the peahen’s city, I admit, I kinda hope that everyone in the city is a peacock. I just see this heavily armored peacock with a spear looking up at the prince and demanding his name and business.
When the queen heard who he was, she came running out to the gate and took him by the hand to lead him into the palace. She was a young and beautiful maiden, and so there was a great rejoicing when, after a few days, he married her and remained there with her.
One day, some time after their marriage, the queen went out to walk, and the king’s son remained in the palace. Before going out, however, the queen gave him the keys of twelve cellars, telling him, “You may go down into all the cellars except the twelfth — that must on no account open, or it will cost you your head.”
Oh please god, let this be a Bluebeard story. “Honey, you’re not my first prince…”
She then went away. The king’s son whilst remaining in the palace began to wonder what there could be in the twelfth cellar, and soon commenced opening one cellar after the other.
Corpses! It’s always corpses! I’m telling you, her last six husbands are eviscerated and lying around in the cellar!
Oooh, or they’re the husbands of the other eight peahens…maybe it’s a weird peahen murder cult. “We’re tired of the males getting the good tailfeathers. Screw it! THERE SHALL BE BLOOD!”
When he came to the twelfth he would not at first open it, but again began to wonder very much why he was forbidden to go into it. “What can be in this cellar?” he exclaimed to himself.
I’m telling you, dude, it’s gonna be pure Silent Hill: Poultry Edition in there.
At last he opened it. In the middle of the cellar lay a big barrel with an open bung-hole, but bound fast round with three iron hoops. Out of the barrel came a voice, saying, “For God’s sake, my brother, I am dying with thirst. Please give me a cup of water!”
Then the king’s son took a cup and filled it with water, and emptied it into the barrel. Immediately he had done so, one of the hoops burst asunder.
Again came the voice from the barrel, “For God’s sake, my brother, I am dying of thirst. Please give me a cup of water!”
The king’s son again filled the cup, and took it, and emptied it into the barrel, and instantly another hoop burst asunder.
The third time the voice came out of the barrel, “For God’s sake, my brother, I am dying of thirst. Please give me a cup of water!”
The king’s son again took the cup and filled it, and poured the water into the barrel, and the third hoop burst. Then the barrel fell to pieces, and a dragon flew out of the cellar, and caught the queen on the road and carried her away.
Now this is unusual.
Not because there’s a dragon in the barrel—although that’s a pretty odd thing to keep in the cellar, I grant you, and the question of how she got him in the barrel in the first place is a tough one–but this is one of the very few cases I can think of in a fairy tale where doing a compassionate deed screws you over. Generally if you give water to the thirsty, you’re rewarded for it. In this case, dragon steals your wife. Hmm. Interesting moral for the young’uns.
Then the servant, who went out with the queen, came back quickly, and told the king’s son what had happened, and the poor prince knew not what to do with himself, so desperate was he, and full of self reproaches. At length, however, he resolved to set out and travel through the world in search of her.
It worked last time. Also, in my head, it’s a small peacock gesticulating wildly to the prince and making that weird peacock noise. “And then—and then—kreeaalp!—he grabbed her in his claws–“
After long journeying, one day he came to a lake, and near it, in a little hole, he saw a little fish jumping about. When the fish saw the king’s son, she began to beg pitifully, “For God’s sake, be my brother, and throw me into the water. Some day I may be of use to you, so take now a little scale from me, and when you need me, rub it gently.”
Then the king’s son lifted the little fish from the hole and threw her into the water, after he had taken one small scale, which he wrapped up carefully in a handkerchief.
See? Good deed! You know it’ll be rewarded! This is the nature of things!
Some time afterwards, as he traveled about the world, he came upon a fox, caught in an iron trap. When the fox saw the prince, he spoke, “In God’s name, be a brother to me, and help me to get out of this trap. One day you will need me, so take just one hair from my tail, and when you want me, rub it gently.”
Then the king’s son took a hair from the tail of the fox, and let him free.
Again, as he crossed a mountain, he found a wolf fast in a trap; and when the wolf saw him, it spoke, “Be a brother to me. In God’s name, set me free, and one day I will help you. Only take a hair from me, and when you need me, rub it gently.”
So he took a hair, and let the wolf free.
After that, the king’s son traveled about a very long time, till one day he met a man, to whom he said, “For God’s sake, brother, have you ever heard anyone say where is the palace of the dragon king?”
The man gave him very particular directions which way to take, and in what length of time he could get there. Then the king’s son thanked him and continued his journey until he came to the city where the dragon lived.
When there, he went into the palace and found therein his wife, and both of them were exceedingly pleased to meet each other, and began to take counsel how they could escape. They resolved to run away, and prepared hastily for the journey. When all was ready they mounted on horseback and galloped away.
Y’know, if she’s that poorly guarded—and a were-peahen to boot—she could probably have escaped on her own.
As soon as they were gone, the dragon came home, also on horseback, and, entering his palace, found that the queen had gone away. Then he said to his horse, “What shall we do now? Shall we eat and drink, or go at once after them?”
“On the one hand, my bride has fled into the night. On the other hand, I could really go for some cheese and crackers about now. Decisions, decisions…”
The horse answered, “Let us eat and drink first. We shall anyway catch them. Do not be anxious.”
After the dragon had dined, he mounted his horse, and in a few moments came up with the runaways. Then he took the queen from the king’s son and said to him, “Go now, in God’s name! This time I forgive you, because you gave me water in the cellar. But if your life is dear to you, do not come back here any more!”
Welllll…I guess that sort of counts. And y’know, I have to say, that is awfully decent of the dragon. Obviously the peahen knew perfectly well that there was a dragon imprisoned in the cellar, which implies some sort of relationship between them. The dragon didn’t lay waste to the city or anything, he just grabbed her and kept going, which argues for a certain focus. I’m not saying you should kidnap enchanted were-peahens—although seriously, if you’re a dragon, at least you’d have something in common on the flight/magic/not-human front—but how DID he wind up in that cellar, anyhow?
And why couldn’t the princess have said “Dude, crazy stalker dragon in the basement, don’t let him out.”?
For my money, the dragon is her ex-husband, and our hero really wasn’t her first prince, but she didn’t want to get into detailed explanations. She could have perfectly good reasons, but she could also be planning a matching barrel for Prince Old-Lady-Killer when the honeymoon is over.
The unhappy young prince went on his way a little, but could not long resist, so he came back next day to the dragon’s palace, and found the queen sitting alone and weeping.
There are no guards in this town at ALL.
Then they began again to consult how they could get away. And the prince said, “When the dragon comes, ask him where he got that horse, and then you will tell me so that I can look for such another one; perhaps in this way we can escape.”
He then went away, lest the dragon should come and find him with the queen.
Oh, come on. The dragon could have walked in and the first servant in the hall said “Prince has been here,” and the dragon said “I have really got to hire some guards. This is getting silly.” This is not a clever dragon. He probably wound in the barrel because the princess said “Hey, I hear barrels are nice,” and stood around with a mallet.
By and by the dragon came home, and the queen began to pet him, and speak lovingly to him about many things, till at last she said, “Ah! what a fine horse you have! Where did you get such a splendid horse?”
I tried to elope with my new boyfriend yesterday, but hey, sexy times!
And he answered, “Eh! Where I got it everyone cannot get one! In such and such a mountain lives an old woman who has twelve horses in her stable, and no one can say which is the finest, they are all so beautiful. But in one corner of the stable stands a horse which looks as if he were leprous, but, in truth, he is the very best horse in the whole world. He is the brother of my horse, and whoever gets him may ride to the sky. But whoever wishes to get a horse from that old woman, must serve her three days and three nights. She has a mare with a foal, and whoever during three nights guards and keeps for her this mare and this foal, has a right to claim the best horse from the old woman’s stable. But whoever engages to keep watch over the mare and does not, must lose his head!”
Leprosy makes horses go faster. Well-known fact.
Next day, when the dragon went out, the king’s son came, and the queen told him all she had learned from the dragon. Then the king’s son went away to the mountain and found the old woman, and entered her house, greeting, “God help you too, my son! What do you wish?”
“I should like to serve you,” said the king’s son. Then the old woman said, “Well, my son, if you keep my mare safe for three days and three nights, I will give you the best horse, and you can choose him yourself. But if you do not keep the mare safe, you shall lose your head.”
Then she led him into the courtyard, where all around stakes were ranged. Each of them had on it a man’s head, except one stake, which had no head on it, and shouted incessantly, “Oh, grandmother, give me a head!”
Won’t lie. Kinda love this. Just try to find this in a modern fantasy.
Hmm, actually that would totally derail any fantasy I was writing. I’d be interviewing the talking stake. It might wind up being the new hero. After all, it has simple, clear-cut goals and hasn’t drawn-and-quartered anybody recently.
The old woman showed all this to the prince, and said, “Look here! All these were heads of those who tried to keep my mare, and they have lost their heads for their pains!”
My sister collects ceramic cats, and Mrs. Worthington down the road collects roosters. It’s just pure country kitsch. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but between ou and me, going into her living room gives me hives.
Me, I collect severed heads. Started when I was a kid. I’ve got a Mickey Mantle that still has most of the hair and everything.
But the prince was not a bit afraid, so he stayed to serve the old woman. When the evening came he mounted the mare and rode her into the field, and the foal followed. He sat still on her back, having made up his mind not to dismount, that he might be sure of her. But before midnight he slumbered a little, and when he awoke he found himself sitting on a rail and holding the bridle in his hand.
Falling magically asleep at inappropriate moments is seriously the theme of this fairy tale, and you’d think the prince would have noticed by now. This is, by my count, the seventh time it’s happened. (SPOILER: It’ll be nine by the end.) I wonder if by this point, he starts to feel the magic coming over him and thinks “Oh crap, not AGAIN!” or if it’s still a surprise every time.
I wonder if magical sleep has side-effects if you’re repeatedly exposed. For all we know, the prince ends this story with a bad case of narcolepsy.
Then he was greatly alarmed, and went instantly to look about to find the mare, and whilst looking for her, he came to a piece of water. When he saw the water he remembered the little fish, and took the scale from the handkerchief and rubbed it a little. Then immediately the little fish appeared and said, “What is the matter, my half-brother?”
And he replied, “The mare of the old woman ran away whilst under my charge, and now I do not know where she is!”
And the fish answered, “Here she is, turned to a fish, and the foal to a smaller one. But strike once upon the water with the bridle and cry out, ‘Hey! mare of the old woman!'”
“My name is Lady Flicka Ramona Sparkle Rainbow Phantasmagoria, but fine, whatever.”
The prince did as he was told, and immediately the mare came, with the foal, out of the water to the shore. Then he put on her the bridle and mounted and rode away to the old woman’s house, and the foal followed. When he got there the old woman gave him his breakfast. She, however, took the mare into the stable and beat her with a poker, saying, “Why did you not go down among the fishes, you cursed mare?”
Aww, man. And here I was starting to like her. That’s it, back to the talking stake.
And the mare answered, “I have been down to the fishes, but the fish are his friends, and they told him about me.”
Then the old woman said, “Then go among the foxes!”
When evening came the king’s son mounted the mare and rode to the field, and the foal followed the mare. Again he sat on the mare’s back until near midnight, when he fell asleep as before. When he awoke, he found himself riding on the rail and holding the bridle in his hand.
So he was much frightened, and went to look after the mare. As he went, he remembered the words the old woman had said to the mare—
Wait, she said that in front of him? I start to see how the dragon outwitted her.
—and he took from the handkerchief the fox’s hair and rubbed it a little between his fingers. All at once the fox stood before him, and asked, “What is the matter, half-brother?”
And he said, “The old woman’s mare has run away, and I do not know where she can be.”
Then the fox answered, “Here she is with us. She has turned into a fox, and the foal into a cub. But strike once with the bridle on the earth and cry out, ‘Hey! you old woman’s mare!'”
So the king’s son struck with the bridle on the earth and cried, “Hey! old woman’s mare!” and the mare came and stood, with her foal, near him.
He put on the bridle, and mounted and rode off home, and the foal followed the mare. When he arrived the old woman gave him his breakfast, but took the mare into the stable and beat her with the poker, crying, “To the foxes, cursed one! To the foxes!”
And the mare answered, “I have been with the foxes, but they are his friends, and told him I was there!”
Then the old woman cried, “If that is so, you must go among the wolves!”
When it grew dark again, the king’s son mounted the mare and rode out to the field, and the foal galloped by the side of the mare. Again he sat still on the mare’s back till about midnight, when he grew very sleepy and fell into a slumber, as on the former evenings, and when he awoke he found himself riding on the rail, holding the bridle in his hand, just as before.
Then, as before, he went in a hurry to look after the mare. As he went, he remembered the words the old woman had said to the mare, and took the wolf’s hair from the handkerchief and rubbed it a little. Then the wolf came up to him and asked, “What is the matter, half-brother?”
And he answered, “The old woman’s mare has run away, and I cannot tell where she is.”
The wolf said, “Here she is with us. She has turned herself into a wolf, and the foal into a wolf’s cub. Strike once with the bridle on the earth and cry out, ‘Hey! old woman’s mare!'”
As as side note, this would totally make more sense with birds or squirrels or something vaguely arboreal than with wolves. I am vaguely bothered by the fact that both the foxes and wolves are in the earth. It doesn’t build in the standard way with the fish and whatnot.
Might just be me.
And the king’s son did so, and instantly the mare came again and stood with the foal beside him. So he bridled her, and galloped home, and the foal followed. When he arrived the old woman gave him his breakfast, but she led the mare into the stable and beat her with the poker, crying, “To the wolves, I said, miserable one!”
And the mare answered, “I have been to the wolves, but they are his friends, and told him all about me!”
Then the old woman came out of the stable, and the king’s son said to her, “Eh! grandmother, I have served you honestly. Now give me what you promised me.”
And the old woman answered, “My son, what is promised must be fulfilled. So look here. Here are the twelve horses. Choose which you like!”
And the prince said, “Why should I be too particular? Give me only that leprous horse in the corner! Fine horses are not fitting for me!”
But the old woman tried to persuade him to choose another horse, saying, “How can you be so foolish as to choose that leprous thing whilst there are such very fine horses here?”
But he remained firm by his first choice, and said to the old woman, “You ought to give me which I choose, for so you promised.”
Open sores are the new racing stripes!
So, when the old woman found she could not make him change his mind, she gave him the scabby horse, and he took leave of her, and went away, leading the horse by the halter.
The talking stake and the mare got very drunk that night and cried on each other’s shoulders. The old woman sulked and polished her heads.
When he came to a forest he curried and rubbed down the horse, when it shone as bright as gold. He then mounted, and the horse flew as quickly as a bird, and in a few seconds brought him to the dragon’s palace.
The king’s son went in and said to the queen, “Get ready as soon as possible!” She was soon ready, when they both mounted the horse, and began their journey home. Soon after, the dragon came home, and when he saw the queen had disappeared, said to his horse, “What shall we do? Shall we eat and drink first, or shall we pursue them at once?”
I won’t lie, I could really go for a little lentil soup.
The horse answered, “Whether we eat and drink or not, it is all one. We shall never reach them.”
When the dragon heard that, he got quickly on his horse and galloped after them. When they saw the dragon following them, they pushed on quicker, but their horse said, “Do not be afraid! There is no need to run away.”
In a very few moments the dragon came very near to them, and his horse said to their horse, “For God’s sake, my brother, wait a moment! I shall kill myself running after you!”
Their horse answered, “Why are you so stupid as to carry that monster? Fling your heels up and throw him off, and come along with me!”
When the dragon’s horse heard that, he shook his head angrily and flung his feet high in the air, so that the dragon fell off and brake in pieces, and his horse came up to them.
Then the queen mounted him and returned with the king’s son happily to her kingdom, where they reigned together in great prosperity until the day of their death.
You know, this feels a bit anti-climactic. You go to all this trouble for the enchanted horse, and then the horse talks the other horse into throwing off the dragon?
There’s a couple of win-the-magic-horse stories out there, and this is the only one I can think of where the horse, rather than epic chases and battles and mountains of glass and fire and whatnot, basically makes a Diplomacy roll and ends the story right there.
It’s not bad, but it’s no twenty-four headed otter, if you know what I mean. Still, the phrase “brake into pieces” does appeal to me, and bonus points for a clear-eyed “AND THEN THEY DIED” ending, rather than trying to disguise the basic mortality of mankind.
But y’know, this one left a lot of loose ends. In the Firebird stories, usually somebody’s enchanted and curse-breaking is involved. In this one, apparently this woman just happens to be a were-peahen. No curses, no enchantment, just lives in the peahen city and occasionally slips out for a snack with her eight…handmaidens? (They never show up again, you notice.) And nowhere does it say they transform.
Maybe they’re regular peahens and the queen just hangs around with them for fun.
Why does a dragon who can fly ride a horse, anyhow? And how did he get in that barrel?
I guess this is how you tell that fairy tales are the real deal and not conventional fiction, since fiction has to make sense, and fairy tales tend to just be jumbles of elements thrown together—the old woman with the horse had some Baba Yaga in her background, I’m betting—that wind up somewhere. While the good ones get at some basic truth, some of them just seem to be a kind of mythological magnetic poetry kit. This is obviously one of the magnetic poetry kit ones.
It’d be a hard one to retell, frankly. Just making sense of the various elements would get tricky, unless you cut some of them. (The barrel. I do not see the barrel working out well.) You could do some fun things with peacock masks and masquerades, maybe, although it does seem criminal to ditch an honest-to-god were-peahen, and you’d HAVE to keep the talking stake in, or what’s the point?
They never actually SAY that the queen is the ninth peahen – he simply shows up at the gates on the palace where live the peahens (golden, you’ll now notice) and is introduced to the queen. Whether or not the queen is one of the peahens is never mentioned, and she doesn’t seem to show any predilection for turning into small game fowl for the rest of the story.
The third son “brought his bed under the tree”… if sons 1 and 2 did that, it’s no wonder they fell asleep!
My other thought: why give the prince a key to a cellar he mustn’t open?
The dragon king thing is adapted from The Death of Koschei the Deathless, a Russian fairytale (and one of my favorites, though it’s very long. Then again, places with 9-month long winters tend toward long fairytales in my experience). On the other hand it does have Marya Morevna, a sort of battle queen. I like her.
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The third son seems to have had a magical gift at the beginning that let him wake up when he needed to. He was so confident in it, that, rather than drinking lots of caffeine and doing aerobics to stay awake, he had his bed brought out and went to sleep. But, he LOST it after MURDERING Jessica Fletcher.
That’s what happens when you kill (probably) innocent mystery writers.